Liberal and NDP MPs say Google should be forced to explain to a Commons committee tests blocking thousands of Canadians’ access to news sites using its search function, in response to the federal government’s online news bill.
The tests, which Google said would continue for five weeks, provoked a backlash from the search engine’s users and the news industry, prompting calls on the federal government to pull back advertising from the tech giant.
Google said it is testing ways to restrict Canadians’ access to news, in reaction to Bill C-18, adding that those included in the trial experienced varying degrees of limited access to news sites using its search function, but could still access them by typing a web address into the browser.
The tech giant has been critical of the online news bill, which would force it to compensate news organizations for posting or linking to their work.
Shay Purdy, a spokesman, said Google is “briefly testing product responses” to the bill, and that the tests will affect less than 4 per cent of Canadians using the search engine. “We run thousands of tests each year to assess any potential changes to search,” he added.
But MPs and senators reacted with dismay at the move. Senator Paula Simons, who sits on the committee that will scrutinize the bill, said: “People think of Google as transparent. Not that it is fiddling around behind the curtain.”
The former journalist, who has been critical of Bill C-18 and its reliance on tech giants to fund the news industry, said Google’s move was designed as a “shot across the bows” and a “flex.”
But she said the “stealth” of the tests had dismayed Canadians and were a “miscalculation.”
“If they had just been upfront, Canadians may have responded differently,” she said. “People don’t want to be played for fools.”
Liberal MP Anthony Housefather said he would support a motion calling for the head of Google to appear “to explain the reasons for this testing of blocking of news sites.”
Mr. Housefather, who sits on the heritage committee, said: “I think Canadians deserve to hear not only from Google executives in Canada but from the CEO of Google Sundar Pichai on this matter. Especially given the number of other countries working on legislation similar to C-18.”
NDP heritage critic Peter Julian, who also sits on the committee, said he too thought Google should be called to account and said the sudden restrictions by the search engine were “irresponsible” and “an attempt to intimidate that is not going to work.”
Paul Deegan, president of News Media Canada, said the government should shift the more than $8-million it spends on marketing and advertising on Google back to news publications.
“Spending is one of the most important parts of the federal government’s policy toolkit.”
As the dominant search engine, Google’s decision to restrict access to news sites “is abuse of dominance” and could breach competition law, he said.
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Marla Boltman, executive director of Friends (formerly Friends of Canadian Broadcasting), said: “Google seems to have forgotten the old adage that with great power comes great responsibility.”
The Commons heritage committee has finished its scrutiny of the bill and it is now being examined by senators who are likely to try to amend it.
The Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB), which represents private broadcasters, accused Google of not playing fair.
“These are bully tactics, and Google is trying to push the Senate to back down on Bill C-18. We hope senators will see these actions for what they are,” CAB president Kevin Desjardins said.